A group of commercial fishermen from Bristol Bay have gone to court to challenge a decision by the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA) to spend about a quarter million dollars on efforts to block development of the proposed Pebble Mine.
The six plaintiffs from three Iliamna Lake villages and Anchorage contend the BBRSDA, a quasi-state entity, is misusing state tax revenue. The organization was established to market Bristol Bay salmon, not lobby against mining, argues the suit filed in Anchorage Superior Court on Monday.
Pebble is a massive copper, gold and molybdenum deposit about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage and about 15 miles north of Iliamna, the largest lake in Alaska, the seventh largest in the country and a major part of the salmon-rich Bristol Bay watershed.
The Pebble Partnership has jumped in to financially back the lawsuit.
“There were several fishermen that we’ve gotten to know over the years who were quite angered by the fact that the taxes they pay on their fish landings is not being use to market and promote the fish. Instead, this money is being used to fund anti-Pebble activities,” Pebble Partnership Vice President of Public Affairs Mike Heatwole said in prepared statement.
None of the fishermen are wealthy, and Heatwole said Pebbles only intent in backing them was to see that the marking money they pay BBRSDA gets spent on marketing.
The possibility of a mine in the remote Iliamna watershed has turned a remote patch of tundra home to a fading caribou herd into the most fought over piece of ground in the 49th state.
Debate has divided local residents and split Alaskans for decades. Where some see economic opportunity in a rural and impoverished part of the state, others see environmental devastation.
Fears have been raised that pollution escaping a mine could destroy the Bristol Bay red salmon fishery 50 miles downstream. The Bay is home to the largest red (sockeye) salmon fishery in the world.
On average, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, as many as half the salmon returning to the Bay are headed for the Kvichak River draining Iliamna Lake, and over the last 20 years the Iliamna watershed has accounted for about a third of the Bay harvest.
Critics of the mine contend the fish are so valuable that a technological gamble on building a truly clean mine isn’t worth the risk even if the Pebble deposit has been valued at more than $500 billion.
Proponents of the mine say a country that put a man on the moon 50 years ago this July and is now working to establish a human colony on that rock with an eye to sending humans to Mars ought to be able to figure out how to develop a major copper deposit with no more damage to the environment than the expansion of the Seattle suburbs.
A dirty legacy
But mines everywhere swim upstream against a history of shoddy, environmentally damaging operations.
Even a decision by the environmentally conscious Norwegians to allow a copper mine in that country’s Arctic has brought a firestorm of accusations that it will pollute reindeer pastures and nearby fiords, add to global warming and create all kinds of other problems.
As in Alaska, trust in the mining company and the Norwegian government to get the project done right appears low even though Norway has been a global leader on many environmental fronts. It is now trying to turn the tide on climate change by going electric. It plans to ban the sale of fossil-fuel powered cars by 2025.
“Due to global warming, there is an ever more urgent necessity for people to electrify the world, and to do that you need copper. That’s a fact,” Norway’s Nussir Asa mining company CEO Vidar Rune Late told Al Jazeera.
The mining debate in Norway has been somewhat more sophisticated than in Alaska, a state divided between those anxious to develop anything and everything, and those who would like to preserve the country’s last great undeveloped piece of real estate as wilderness.
Pebble has become a hot button issue for both sides. That almost everyone in Alaska already has a position on Pebble appears to be part of what drove the lawsuit challenging the BBRSDA decision to give the United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB) $225,000 to “for various activities, including, “educating the public” on how to lobby state and federal officials, flying people to public hearings, working social media and otherwise organizing grassroots opposition to Pebble.
The thrust of the suit is that there are better things for BBRSDA to do with its marketing money than to help add more fuel to the already raging Pebble fire.
Contracts the marketing association has signed with the UTBB and SalmonState “are unrelated to and beyond the scope and purpose for which BBRSDA was created: to promote and market seafood products harvested in the Bristol Bay region,” the suit says.
SalmonState is a Juneau-based, non-governmental organization with a staff of 13 dedicated to protecting salmon habitat. As part of its “Save Bristol Bay” campaign, it proclaims “that Pebble is the wrong mine in the wrong place. It’s time for the mine’s proponents to listen to Alaskans: pack up and go home.”
The UTBB is of a like mind. In 2010, it led a group of sport and commercial fishermen that petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) to block the mine under the auspices of Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act.
The EPA spent years studying the mine. In 2012, hearings were held around Alaska and 1,500 miles to the south in Seattle to make it easier for Bristol Bay fishermen to testify.
Outside fishermen testifying in Seattle had absolutely nothing to gain from anything – let alone a mine – being developed in the Bay and potentially something to lose.
Technology is not foolproof. Even the U.S. space program suffered accidents. The EPA decided that was a Pebble possibility, too.
In 2014 the agency under President Barack Obama imposed restrictions on mine development that made any mining impossible, a national first under the Clean Water Act.
“The agency’s proposal is measured, solidly grounded in science, and directly responsive to the overwhelming local opposition to the project,” said a statement from the National Resource Defense Council, an environmental leader in the fight against the mine.
The Pebble Limited Partnership promptly sued and all kinds of hell broke loose. Pebble charged government officials colluded with environmentalists to use the Clean Water Act to sidestep normal permit review procedures and kill the mine even before it was given a chance to submit a plan for development.
Phil North, the EPA official at the heart of the dispute, promptly retired and disappeared.
“While he was living out his retirement dreams abroad, something odd was happening back home,” the New Yorker reported in 2016. “He was becoming perhaps the most infamous retired Alaskan bureaucrat anywhere—a rogue scientist on the lam, the subject of lawsuits, subpoenas, and congressional inquiries and hearings.”
Eventually, the EPA under President Donald Trump settled the lawsuit and allowed the permitting process to begin again. A draft environmental statement has since been completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees these sorts of projects, and another round of public hearings have begun.
At hearings in Kokhanok and Newhalen earlier this week, public radio station KDLG reported their was some support voiced for the mine.
“What do we have here?” asked the spouse of one of the plaintiffs involved in the BBRSDA lawsuit. “The village council that only has five, six jobs. The school that only has maybe two or three aides. And the school that has maybe two. That’s not very much economy here. We need something for our kids. But we also need to make sure it’s safe.”
The safety debate has been ongoing for decades.
The possibility of a mine at Pebble began first began attracting attention in the late 1980s as mineral exploration detailed the size and potential value of the mineral deposit. Controversy quickly followed.
Mining companies came and went, beaten back by protesters only to turn the potential golden goose over to new investors, and there is little doubt as to the potential.
Northern Dynasty, the company now holding the goose, estimates Pebble contains a minimum of 57 billion pounds of copper, 71 million ounces of gold, 3.4 billion pounds of molybdenum and 345 million ounces of silver.
There is a lot of gold in those low-lying hills just north of Iliamna, but no perfectly safe way to get it out because safety is never an absolute; it is a probability.
A court will get to decide whether the state-funded BBRSDA should be allowed to advise people on how to weigh that probability. Whether the organization should be involved at all is also something of a question under state law.
Officially the state under Gov. Mike Dunleavy has taken the position the permitting process should be allowed to determine the mine’s fate on its technical feasibility. The BBRSDA’s position could be viewed as an attempt to kill it the old-fashioned way, with overwhelming public opposition.
The organization gets its funding from a 1 percent state tax on Bristol Bay salmon harvests delivered to the docks by fishermen. The tax was approved by a majority vote of the Bay’s state-permitted fishermen in 2006.
The tax provides the organization more than $1 million per year. Some fishermen don’t like paying it, but it is required by law.
“The tax is collected by the state and distributed to BBRSDA….Because the funds are considered part of the state’s general fund prior to distribution,
BBRSDA does not recognize them as revenue until the beginning of the state fiscal year in which they will be distributed to BBRSDA,” the organization says. “The Association received substantially all of its revenue from the state of Alaska. Annual funding by the state of Alaska is subject to
appropriation by the Legislature.”
Commercial fishermen in Alaska are recipients of these taxes returned to them to market or raise fish in hatcheries. The general fund kickbacks from fishing taxes are part of the reason the state ends up subsidizing the costs of managing and policing the commercial fisheries.
Update: An early version of this story lacked the fact the Pebble Partnership was helping finance the lawsuit.